“More dangerous than ISIS,” says Marine Corps General Thomas Waldhauser, the Commander of U.S. Africa Command. General Waldhauser is talking about the conditions in Libya. From a geopolitical, major power competition perspective, Russia’s moves into the failed state plus a deteriorating security situation on the ground are cause for alarm. Here’s the dilemma for the U.S.: Does Libya represent enough of a strategic arena to get involved or does Russia’s entrance into that arena make Libya of vital national security interest? President Trump’s emphasis on keeping America out of foreign military ventures would seem to recommend against the U.S. dipping its toe in that water. However, as LN’s Jeff Charles has rightly pointed out, there are global circumstances that make it worth taking an active interest.
“Critics of the Trump administration have slammed their ‘America First’ approach to foreign policy. They have dismissed it as mere isolationism. However, ‘America First’ does not mean that the United States must completely shelter itself from the rest of the world; it means that we will not involve ourselves in unnecessary conflicts that are detrimental to the United States and other countries. We will avoid the types of mistakes that led to the rise of ISIS in Iraq and slavery in Libya.”
We need to understand the stakes for America as well as what motivates Russia. The value proposition for the U.S. is tricky. The situation on the ground in Libya is tumultuous and uncertain. Security for American troops has been made tenuous enough that General Waldhauser has pulled out the small contingent of forces that Africa Command had in Libya. Their mission is to provide “military support to diplomatic missions, counter-terrorism activities, enhancing partnerships [presumably military-to-military], and improving security across the region.”
That the U.S. forces have been relocated because of the “unrest” casts doubt on the success of the “improving security” part of Africa Command’s mission. Nonetheless, the America’s equity in Libya is summed up with the stated mission.
On the Russian side, Moscow is behaving in what has become a standard operating procedure in the implementation of “hybrid warfare” across Africa. Not wishing to commit regular troops, Russia is using irregular “private military contractors,” or PMCs. In the case of Libya, those irregular forces are members of the Wagner Group. Dr. Kimberly Marten in a presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, explained the reasons Russia uses the Wagner Group:
- Save state funding.
- Add a skill set to regular troops when necessary.
- Avoid casualties for the regular forces.
- Provide plausible deniability for the Russian government.
Interestingly enough, The Wagner Group, though it behaves like a traditional PMC, it is an offshoot of the irregular “Slavonic Corps” that fought in eastern Ukraine and engaged in the infighting among pro-Russian militias in the same region. These activities sowed chaos and enabled the Russians to gain a foothold in that area of Ukraine.
The Wagner Group, with between 1,400 and 2,000 PMC combatants, has aligned itself with a Libyan warlord, General Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA). The ongoing civil strife pits the tentatively established national government in Tripoli against several factions – including ISIS and al Qaeda – of which the LNA is the most active. The Kremlin anticipates Haftar will be successful in taking over the Libyan government. As has been the case in other African countries, according to Marten, being on the winning side in civil strife secures Moscow’s “economic and geopolitical advantages.” In the case of Libya, the upper hand would result from securing a valuable seaport and a strategic position on NATO’s southern flank. But Russia’s intentions in Libya are more “multifaceted in nature.”
Samuel Ramani, in a commentary, “Russia’s Endgame in Libya,” published by the Royal United Services Institute in London (RUSI), describes Russia’s motives this way. “Russia is militarily supporting Haftar to increase its geopolitical influence in LNA-controlled areas, but it is also trying to present itself as a diplomatic arbiter to burnish its regional status and secure lucrative nationwide reconstruction contracts.” It remains to be seen whether the Kremlin will be successful. It may be that Russia won’t have any more success stabilizing the hostile Libyan landscape than anyone else.
Is the Libyan security threat more dangerous than ISIS? If the questioner views Russia’s presence in Libya and the geopolitical impact the Kremlin may have in the region, well, perhaps. However, historically, the ultimate advantage goes to the patient observer who waits for the dust to settle and offers help without conditions attached. The United States is capable of doing that, while putting “America First.”
(The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.)
Read more from Dave Patterson.
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